TAMPA This time the head was too close to home. Too disturbing. Too shocking.
Vincent Jackson who died alone in a nondescript, Brandon hotel room a week after the Super Bowl was as ridiculous as it was heartbreaking. This wasn’t thousands of miles away like Junior Seau. This was not a minor name that was difficult to place. This was not a notorious loose cannon that seemed destined for a prematurely sad ending.
This was Vincent Jackson. Football Player. Local philanthropist. Childrens author. Businessman.
And now perhaps the victim of the sport that helped define him.
Yep, that’s a headline too painful to ignore. And yet the fear is that it is not being paid attention in too many ways. By players who rationalize invincibility. By a competition that gives priority to profit. By parents who see nothing wrong with primary school children who play football. Used by fans and, yes, media, to look the other way.
I just hope it stays fresh with everyone. I hope people take action, said former Bucs center Randy Grimes, who leads a chapter of his Athletes in Recovery program from the WhiteSands alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in Plant City.
I want to remove the stigma of an alcoholic, drug addict or mental health problem, so that people raise their hands and turn to families for help. Unfortunately, it takes such a thing to remind us. Just like with Junior Seau; but it doesn’t stay in the news long enough. There is always a news cycle and you will not hear anything about the Vincent Jacksons.
To be clear, there is no official record of Jacksons death. But there is evidence to suggest that Jackson, 38, struggled with alcohol abuse, a point raised in a radio interview by Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. Jackson had been arrested twice for DUI earlier in his NFL career.
Chronister also said that Jackson’s family members were concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma. According to a family spokesperson, Jackson’s brains are being donated to Boston University, which pioneered CTE research.
Twenty years ago this conversation wouldn’t even have happened, and that’s progress. But it is not enough yet. The NFL has made strides with helmet safety, concussion protocols, and prescription drug abuse, but there’s still a long way to go.
For an industry approaching $ 20 billion in annual revenues, there should be no excuse for players falling between the cracks when it comes to post-career care. Not when it becomes increasingly clear that the game itself has played a major role in so much misery.
It’s not just the toll taken on knees, hips, shoulders and backs and the temptation to suppress the pain with opiates. It’s not just the repeated blows to the head that create protein clots that destroy brain cells and change personalities. It’s not just the psychological and economic adjustment of life outside of NFL worship. It’s all those things combined.
Buc’s former offensive lineman Tom McHale was so aware of the need to prepare for a life after football that he gave up a run at the University of Maryland to transfer to an Ivy League school without any athletic scholarships (Cornell).
He played in the NFL for nine years, then prepared to settle into the life of a restaurateur with his wife Lisa and their three boys. At the age of 45, McHale was already dead from an accidental overdose.
In a quest for more answers to his dramatic personality changes, Lisa had his brain examined and became one of the first six NFL players to be posthumously diagnosed with CTE. She said he retired from offers from NFL teams because he wanted to make sure he was healthy enough to enjoy life, but he never realized the effects of nearly 20 years of high school, college, and professional football on his brain. .
There are some very, very important ramifications of the game, Lisa McHale said Thursday. We don’t know at this point if (Jackson’s death) was related in any way, but given its exposure and history, it would be shocking if it wasn’t. And you have to realize that these are guys who were remarkably great, great guys with supportive families in every way. So you see this and realize that if it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. That is an important message.
It just makes me so sad to think how big of a problem this is. And I think I would see it more and more. Because this group of players, now in their thirties and forties, started playing at a much younger age. I hope it shakes up the parents. It’s not worth the risk. Not for young boys.
In a 2017 study conducted by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the brains of 110 of 111 NFL players who died were found to have some degree of CTE decline. Those numbers are likely skewed because the donated brains came from families with suspected decline, but foundation CEO and co-founder Chris Nowinski said those players accounted for nearly 10 percent of deaths in the NFL during that period. That suggests that at least 10 percent of players have suffered brain damage, and he estimates it’s closer to 40-50 percent.
Nowinski, a Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, said there is a great need for more programs across the country designed specifically for athletes, military personnel and other professions at risk for head injuries.
We have a helpline, and in the past 18 hours, I’ve talked to two NFL women of relatively young men. Someone struggling dramatically and another whose wife is concerned is going down this road, Nowinski said. The problem is that there is not enough support. There are programs for former NFL players, but many of them still reach us as an independent nonprofit. Getting the help people need is not easy. Because this not only happens to the individual, it also happens to his family. And the consequences are profound.
It was McHales’ death in 2008 that helped Grimes finally seek help to combat the opioid addiction that had ravaged his life in the first decade after he left the Bucs. He was embarrassed to seek help, saying that too many NFL players are silently trying to overcome it.
I had a lot of guilt and shame, Grimes said. I was Mr. Second Round Draft Pick. I married my college cheerleader sweetheart and had two wonderful kids, and here I slept on the floor of an empty house with no utilities. That’s where my addiction took me.
Over the past 10-11 years I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of former players. There are a lot of guys who, for whatever reason, have not yet raised their hands and asked for help. The NFL and the (players association) must take this a step further. They need to come on board to help these guys transition better and stay in touch with them afterward.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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